The strongest miners will get out first. Then the sick ones. Last will be those considered brave and mentally sound enough to be left behind for a few extra hours in the subterranean cavern that has been their prison for over two months.
As drillers came near to completing the narrow tunnel that will provide an escape route for the 33 men trapped half-a-mile down a remote Chilean mine, rescue workers finalised arrangements for the complex and potentially dangerous operation that they hope will bring the miners to safety.
Laurence Golborne, the country's mining minister, announced that “Plan B” — a tunnel made by one of three powerful drills working to free the miners — had advanced to just 89 metres from the cavern where the men have been trapped since an August 5 rockfall.
The drill is expected to reach the cavern in the San Jose gold and copper mine near the northern city of Copiapo by dawn today. The rescue team will then begin to evaluate whether the escape tunnel ought to be lined. That, and other technical operations, which should take between two and 10
days, must be completed before the rescue can begin.
“We expect to break through to them around Saturday,” Mr Golborne said. “The rescue process will take a few days. If we do not case the hole, we may have to wait for two, or three, or four days. If we have to start installing the casing, it may take between eight to 10 days.”
Officials from the Chilean navy, which has built the steel escape pod that is expected to carry the 33 men up their 26in-wide escape tunnel to freedom, told reporters at the remote desert mine how the final stages of the rescue operation would be organised.
Before anyone can be sent to the surface, 16 men will join the miners in the cavern, where they have been living for 65 days. Their job will be to check on the workers' physical condition and to ensure they know how to use the rescue capsule safely in the 15 minutes it is expected to take to reach the surface.
Commander Renato Navarro, the navy's submarine chief, said the list was based on daily examinations of the trapped miners.
Speculation is growing that the first man up will be Edison Pena, an amateur athlete who has been running 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) a day in the mine's tunnels. He is a huge Elvis Presley fan and has been working out while listening to an iPod loaded with the King’s songs, which was sent down one of the small tubes that have been used to keep the men alive.